A few weeks ago, I dialed 911 from a sidewalk in my neighborhood to alert the police of a lost child who had asked me for help. "What's your location?" the dispatcher asked. I had no idea; it was a small side street whose name I had never bothered to learn. I had to run to the end of the block and stare up at the street sign, and when the dispatcher wasn't familiar with the name, either, I had to spell it out, letter-by-letter.
Soon, it may not be quite so difficult to alert emergency services of your location. The Wall Street Journal reports that a forthcoming update to Apple's iOS will automatically send out your phone's location to emergency call centers when you're on the phone with 911.
The update is part of a partnership with RapidSOS, a technology company founded to make it easier for first responders to reach people in an emergency. It aims to make it as simple to find a 911 caller using a cell phone as it is to find one using a landline.
Landline systems can deliver your exact address to emergency services, but cell phone carriers currently only convey your approximate location, with even less accuracy than Google Maps or Uber can. It might be off by as much as a few hundred yards, which can make a substantial difference if you're waiting for life-saving care. The FCC has ruled that by 2021, all cell phone carriers must be able to locate emergency callers within 165 feet, 80 percent of the time—but that's years away.
The new update would come with iOS 12, which is expected to be released later this year. The data automatically sent by your iOS would be different from that data your cell phone carrier sends. It will use Apple's HELO (Hybridized Emergency Location), a system that estimates location based on cell towers, GPS, and Wi-Fi access, sending that information over to emergency call systems using RapidSOS's technology. RapidSOS isn't used by all 911 call centers in the U.S., but the company reports that it will be used by the majority by the end of the year.
In a press release, Apple promises that user data will only be available for emergency use, and that the responding 911 call center will only have access to your location data for the duration of your call.
I wasn't in a hurry when I called 911, and I had the time and the ability to jog down the street and find a sign to figure out where I was. In most emergency situations, the few extra seconds or minutes it could take to pinpoint your own location might be a matter of life and death. As more Americans give up their landlines and go wireless-only, better emergency services location tech will be vital.